Mormon Art and Cultural Change

Guest post by Christian Frandsen, BYU student and Assistant Curator at Writ & Vision.

Exciting—even radical—things are happening in the world of Mormon art and aesthetics. Certainly this reflects the recent widening of cultural horizons in the way mainstream Mormonism considers social topics like feminism and race, but the work of Mormon artists even in Mormon-est of all Mormon havens—Utah valley—is digging out a foundation of progressive aesthetics that extends well beyond the plot of cultural square footage that we Mormons have staked out. This is important, especially considering that one of these artists is J Kirk Richards—perhaps the most respected creator of Mormon religious art.

Richards EveTwo significant pieces that debuted this year—one an oil painting, the other a mixed-media drawing—hang as clear indicators of this new artistic territory. Eve and the Fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, by Richards, depicts a beautiful Eve, illuminated by a halo, contemplating the gleaming fruit from which she has just taken a bite. Behind her rise the golden trees of Eden at sunset. This seems like standard fair for a Mormon painting, but this is no blond Eve dressed in yellow blankets strolling among the tigers with her brunette Adam. This Eve is black and she’s unapologetically nude. There is so much that could be unpacked from those two simple artistic choices, but it is obviously significant that a mainstream Mormon artist has departed from our traditionally white aesthetic narrative to paint a woman of color as the mother of all living.

12493794_991629760911013_6831644838678644217_o (2)Just across the gallery from this breath-taking image of Eve hangs a large drawing by Faith Kershisnik entitled Temple. The composition here is simple. A short-haired woman serenely sits breastfeeding her infant. Again, the subject matter is easily imagined as a sweet illustration in an Ensign article about motherhood in which a lovely young mother gazes adoringly at her child, angled just so in order to let the viewer know she’s breastfeeding without actually showing her body. But this is no Ensign illustration. This woman is full-bodied. This woman faces her viewer squarely. And, just like Eve, this woman is nude. Kershisnik accomplishes something wonderful here. It is certainly important that this painting is a representation of the female body by a female artist—there is important work of reclamation taking place here. But beyond that, Kershisnik’s drawing conjures up images of fertility goddesses, the Willendorf Venus, and even Buddhist iconography and ties them into the familiar Mormon concept of the body as a temple. This pushes our collective Mormon imagination to contemplate more deeply the divine feminine, to seek out more universally for other well-springs of truth, and to reconsider deeply-held but problematic ideas about the female body, female sexuality, and the sheer and sweaty physicality of motherhood.

Kershisnik and Richards are of course not the only two Mormon artists who are stretching our imaginations and our iconography. Many other artists as well are using their art to help us grow in the way that only art can. Images are capable of effectively teaching and saying what Sunday school teachers and bloggernacle writers are not. For our readers along the Wasatch front, these paintings can be viewed through March 25 at Writ & Vision—an art gallery and used book store in Historic Downtown Provo.

Comments

  1. I love the boundary pushing, I do. And I love JKR. But can we discuss that overwhelmingly most women of color I’ve heard talk about this piece are not happy with it? They don’t feel centered or celebrated, but used.

    I’ve seen a lot of writers try to check themselves by having POC test readers on drafts. Can I recommend that LDS artists committed to progress do the same thing?

  2. I think it’s an interesting reaction. Does it to some extent put us in a bind, culturally? Must our most talented artists stick with the Scandinavian Eves of our racist Mormon artistic past?

    Kirk Richards explained at a Writ & Vision FHE on Monday, March 14 that he simply painted Eve black because that accords better with our understanding of the origins of the human race than the kitsch white Eves, whose bodies are ridiculously strategically covered with fern leaves, of previous generations of racist Mormon art.

    I can vouch for Kirk that he by no means intended to “use” anyone or any group in any way other than to depict Eve more appropriately. (He mentioned he would not describe it as “realistically” given the mythological content and the remove from actual history. Instead, he wanted to convey everything our beliefs about Eve entail, including the Mormon belief in the “fortunate Fall,” while at the same time invoking facts that we know about human origins from knowledge that has been revealed to us through science.)

  3. Most of the Writ & Vision session was devoted to comments and Q&A and one woman mentioned how wonderful it was that Eve is depicted as so confident and self-assured, with her head held high even while partaking of the fruit after making her impossible decision between breaking one commandment or another. That comment captured what I like most about the painting — that head held high.

  4. John, I think that well articulates the intention, but we should be listening as well to some of the WoC who are talking about impact on their feelings. Unfortunately for all concerned, intention and impact aren’t always the same. I think it’s an important conversation to have.

  5. Impact is so, so important. I see no way an analytical discussion about the implications of that impact for Mormon art and culture will not come across as disregarding or devaluing those feelings, even though nothing could be farther from the truth.

  6. I love both pieces of art discussed in this article. I’m perplexed by the idea that an artist should poll people and analyze feelings before creating. Expecting these kinds of limitations turns art into just a project.

  7. I lucked onto a Facebook discussion about this painting started by a WoC (Google is your friend) who found this image triggering in a way that I couldn’t imagine, being a white woman whose cultural landscape it far too much limited to the mainstream. I enjoy Richards’ work a great deal, and I reacted favorably to this painting, but there is more to the discussion than what he’s saying. I’m not prepared to speak to it, but I am grateful to the women I know who are well prepared, so that I am not blind to it.

  8. Faith Kershisnik’s drawing stirs no controversy for me, it pushes all its boundaries in ways that I fully approve. And applaud. I realize I’m probably on the community fringe in that.Still, I love the nudity, the natural figure of a postpartum woman, and the internal conversation conjured up by the title.

  9. Kristine A says:

    Why wouldn’t an artist who is depicting a historically/presently oppressed group of people want to know how that group of people feels about / responds to the work?

    An author Daniel Jose Older said this on Twitter this morning:

    “But if you’re cool with authors being critiqued on a craft level, and you should be, you gotta also accept it when it happens re: race

    And “she’s my friend” or “she means well” or “she tried!” aren’t actually defenses. Or helpful.”

  10. I think that depicting a naked black woman engages different social and cultural histories than painting a naked white women—histories that exoticize and exploit black female bodies. I don’t think it would be possible for Kirk to have painted something like this without immersing his work in these troubled waters. It’s also a case study in something Kirk understands well: that as an artist when you produce work and release it to the public you relinquish control over how it is received and interpreted, not just in art-critical terms but the kinds of social criticism it is subject to. The public’s response and individual responses are never, ever dictated by the artist’s intent. That’s just the nature of the artistic enterprise. I’m not surprised or even alarmed that these are the kinds of critical conversations this piece is catalyzing. I think that Mica has been extremely respectful in articulating her critical response. It is a provocative piece of art, and this is what provocative art does. I think it’s doing a lot of good in the community, and Mica’s response is a part of that good.

  11. If one assumes that Adam and Eve descended from “pre-Adamite” humans, whose history stretches back tens of thousands of years (which I do) — then there can be no conclusion as to the race of Adam and Eve. By the time Adam and Eve came onto the scene as the first covenant makers with God, the various races had largely already developed. If we’re going to trust the Biblical genealogy, then Adam and Eve were likely closer to Semitic/Arabic than black or white. I’m not commenting on the painting — just the artist’s assertion that Eve HAD to have been black.

  12. Kirk Richards never asserted that Eve had to be black — I did not mean to convey that impression with my earlier comments.

  13. I guess I read a little too much into his words in the SL Tribune article. “‘Whether a literal person or a representation of our earliest ancestors, I’m convinced Eve was black,’ the artist says.”

  14. Clark Goble says:

    I suspect in many if not most Mormon circles the nudity is more of a concern than the race. Nudity is understandably such a big part of art history and art training that it’s intrinsically viewed differently within that community – even the Mormon artist community. But the broader community sees it violating certain issues of sacredness and privateness.

  15. Oh, hadn’t seen the SLT article.

  16. Clark Goble says:

    Daniel, if one wants a literal Adam and Eve and one accepts Adam-ondi-Ahman, accepts the overwhelming evidence of humans going back to before 100,000 years ago, then one has to accept a limited flood model of Noah and the idea that Adam and Eve most likely resembled native Americans of north America circa 5,000 BC.

  17. Lifted from Peggy Fletcher Stack’s coverage of the Richards painting, in the Salt Lake Tribune: ‘The image “is an exoticized Eve, a black woman who finds herself naked at the hands of a white man,” says McGriggs, whose academic research is in multiculturalism. “As soon as a white Mormon man decides to ‘reimagine’ Eve as black, she is naked and up for auction.”

    Knowing that it is near impossible for me (a white man) to have an appropriate comment, but trying . . . I agree with McGriggs, I see it, and in important ways it troubles me a lot. But in another sense, my being troubled enhances my appreciation of the image. I do see the ‘naked and up for auction’ image (even before McGriggs labeled it) and imagine an Eve pressed into service, with an unenviable, even cursed, but necessary task to fulfill for the good of all mankind. For me that’s an important way to think about Eve.

  18. Jason K. says:

    I also find McGriggs’s critique quite trenchant.

  19. Clark, great point. Either that or our current suspected rates of genetic mutation and C13 decay are way off. Both sciences are young. Either way, to me the Adam and Eve story will always be more a text of our spiritual origins than one of biology.

  20. If the painting does evoke that image (“an exoticized Eve, a black woman who finds herself naked at the hands of a white man” and “naked and up for auction”) then that enhances the power of the painting by orders of magnitude precisely in the Mormon context, doesn’t it? Similar to what CK said a few comments above, it forces us to behold that our culture’s and our society’s recalcitrant racism over the centuries, as expressed most powerfully through African chattel slavery, was an affront against none other than Eve herself, and based on her skin color alone.

    The Mormon angle is, of course, our culture’s ideological complicity in this horrific crime and our own participation through the priesthood and temple ban — literally denying Adam and Eve (assuming they had black or brown skin) these quintessential aspects of a disciple’s life in Mormon Christianity — which were the result of our racist folk doctrines that deemed African peoples inferior simply based on their skin color alone, following racist Protestant theories and interpretations about biblical curses, etc.

    Why would a black Eve not be seen as an almost necessary redemptive act in Mormon art from the racist beliefs of the past which held that Adam and Eve *must* be white because black people were seen as inferior or an aberration? Even if painted by a white artist? Everyone’s free to have their interpretations, and I agree with Brad upthread that the race-critical observations that have been voiced have been important for deepening the dialogue about the painting itself and more broadly about Mormon culture and art in general.

    In the end analysis, some interpretations find more support in the evidence than others. In this particular situation, I am not sure about the assertion that this is “an exoticized Eve, a black woman who finds herself naked at the hands of a white man.” Genesis says they were naked. The scientific record implies they were likely black or brown skinned if they were the first humans (homo sapiens). The figure is not particularly exoticized — just young, strong, and confident, as I suppose an idealized depiction of Eve should be.

  21. These conversations, here? This attempting to listen to each other and learn what others have to say? This considering a powerful archetype from a previously unconsidered point of view? This discussion of intent v. reception? All examples of why art is so important.

  22. Jason K. says:

    What Tracy said.

    Part of the challenge posed by this painting is that the road to racial justice involves white people cleaning our own houses, which can’t be an entirely passive process. We need to listen to black voices, absolutely, but at the same time we also have to act, publicly. Otherwise, we’re just expecting black people to do our housework for us, which is, uh, problematic.

    It’s also the case that nothing is pure or pristine. Is it a problem that Kirk will make money off the body of a naked black woman? Sure. Is it good that a white Mormon artist can picture a black Eve? Sure. Can he have one of these without the other? I kind of doubt it.

    I guess all I’m saying is that the necessary conversations will involve, as Milton would say, dust and heat.

  23. I think we should all be very careful, as white people, to silence the voices of colored people as “incorrect” or “less accurate.” I think it should be obvious to white progressive mormons that we have racial blind spots. When we are challenged or called out – why are we so defensive? Why don’t we just sit with it and listen?

  24. I welcome anything fresh or insightful an artist can bring to his or her culture. But sometimes an artist adds “insights” that are distracting rather than revelatory.

    The “insights” of J. Kirk Richards are simple. The first insight is that Kirk believes in evolution and the scientific narrative of the creation of the human race, so he makes Eve African. There is nothing profound about this insight. It is just a standard, unorthodox viewpoint. It is also contrary to the beliefs of most Mormons, so right there he has distracted 75% of his audience with a banal insight. Was it really worth it?

    The second insight is equally banal: “I’m not afraid to paint a nude.” There is nothing profound about this either, as artists in “the world” have been painting nudes for thousands of years. There is nothing amazing about this nude, no revelatory glowing flesh like Titian, none of the warmth of Gaugin’s Tahitians. Kirk’s nude is simple and expressionless, more illustration than art. So without any additional depth in the nude, this is simply nudity for nudity’s sake, and says nothing more than daring his audience to approve of nudity in general.

    But there are other, more beautiful and insightful things about the painting: the play of the light, the sun and its relation to the fruit, the autumnal setting. But most people will not notice these better insights, because they are distracted by the more banal insights.

    Maybe Kirk doesn’t care about Mormon culture and whether or not we are “distracted” by his choices. Maybe he’s just painting Eve as he sees her, without any notion that he is “challenging” LDS culture to accept nudity or evolution. In that case, I apologise for the critique. But if this art was created as a challenge, I don’t think it was a very successful challenge.

  25. Those are some sweeping statements and broad generalizations there, Nate.

  26. Clark Goble says:

    John F, I should add that I would very much like to see more races represented in these roles in the temple.

  27. My initial, visceral response to the Richards Eve painting when it was displayed on social media was reflective of what Mica articulates. I’ve come to trust my gut. . . and this felt like an encroachment on sacred ground by someone who does not have the right to be there.

    I appreciate nudes in art. I appreciate the artist’s work. I believe the biblical first parents were black. I see beauty in this painting.

    What I see even more, however, is an opportunity for the artist to learn more about himself than he might have anticipated. We reveal ourselves through our art. It seems to me it’s a valid question–what does the artist reveal about himself with this particular work? What if Mica is right? What if the artist has drawn his brush through the familiar palette of white male privilege? What if the entire work reflects that? What if it is impossible for him to do otherwise at this time in his life? What if it’s irreverent for him to paint this piece, regardless of his own sense of innocence about his motives? These are valid, even vital questions.

  28. My question is what to do about it? I read Mcgriggs critique of the piece and can certainly understand it (as much as a white person can I suppose) but being the pragmatist that I am I wonder what the solution is. Destroy the piece? Make the artist disavow it? Pledge not to buy a copy? Honestly I would love to buy a copy and hang it in my home, not so much because I really love it, but because of the conversations it would spark (about all the topics discussed above- race, nudity, evolution, etc.). As we can see from the comments it is a great conversation piece, but if that is at the expense of women of color then is it worth it? I guess my question then is what would Mcgriggs like to see done from here on out? I ask in sincerity and recognize that maybe my need for a practical solution is problematic in and of itself.

  29. Sean the Sheep says:

    Are non-American black women going to have concerns about this painting? It seems that pretty consistently the concerns of African-Americans are used as a proxy for the concerns of all Africans. Sometimes in Europe you’ll even hear nervous white folk talking about blacks as “Afro-Americans” because they’re so confused about how to be politically correct (in the polite words sense, not the refraining from beating up protesters sense) and American discourse can be so dominant. Even though the person/people in question with African heritage has/have never lived in America. There are many more black women in the world whose history has never been defined by American-style slavery.

    And you know, my black daughter (8) doesn’t even really understand slavery yet, so maybe I should get a print of this painting (and other similar) now so her experience with black female nude imagery is defined by depictions of powerful women rather than the actions of evil black and white slavers hundreds of years ago. Take that, Satan.

    Kirk is a sensitive guy, so I’m sure this criticism will have interesting influences on his future work.

  30. I’ve been mulling over this painting and conversation. Then I read this on the FemWOC website in an article unrelated to this painting:

    “The story of black women within the Mormon church has often been ignored. Instead, we focus on those whose oppressions are easily categorized without intersections. The racial oppression of black men through their exclusion of the Priesthood and the pious suffering of white women as they endured the sacrifices and the sexism of polygamy take center stage. At best, black women are a distant afterthought.”

    Of all the members of our church, black women and their stories are likely the most invisible. Even the LGBT community, with all of their suffering, have at least been an ongoing topic of conversation. I can think of few (maybe one?) depictions of black women in our LDS gospel artwork, not including cheesy Ensign cover photos to show that yes, we too are diverse! But as stated in the quote, at best black women are a distant afterthought. And now, when we ARE talking about her, there she is, bare breasted and painted by a white mormon man. And though I think the painting is beautiful, I wonder if it is more a celebration of a white man pushing the boundaries of his religious culture to find a more honest Eve, and the bravery that it can take to do so. But maybe he, like most of us, has been ignoring this entire group of our membership (and the pain they have likely had to endure). And that by putting this group out there in this particular way, can be seen as more oppressive than liberating?

  31. If the artist truly believes that Eve had a physical appearance similar to modern-day Africans, and he truly believes that he is as much a descendant of her as modern-day Africans are, then does he not have an equal right and justification to paint his own ancestor? If he were a white child of African parents and African siblings, would he have less of a right to paint his parents than his African siblings do?

  32. He has a right to paint whatever he wants. And I do think it is a beautiful painting. But it is helpful to look at art in context. And although I don’t know anything about the artist other than that he is a white Mormon man, possibly from the Utah area, there is context in that. Is this the first time he has painted Eve as black? And if so, why the full frontal bare chested stance? We’ve seen a white Scandinavian Eve painted numerous times, even in the nude, but from behind, or a side pose, or a pose where her arms covered her breasts. I have no problem with nudity in art. But why, the very first time we see a nude black Eve in Mormon art, is she more blatantly nude than any white Eve we’ve seen thus far? The answer may be that he is pushing boundaries. Or wanted Eve to be proud, strong, etc. But in the little context I have about the artist, it also feels exploitative, even if done completely innocently. Did he even think twice? Do black women not deserve a second thought when displayed in the nude, but white women do?

    I’ve come to find that when I interact with groups more oppressed than myself, my motivations are often good, but can be laced with discrimination I didn’t realize was even there.

  33. your food allergy is fake says:

    A clear microaggression here. For those who find this offensive, I would be interested to see what an inoffensive image of a black female painted by a white male looks like.

  34. Sorry if my tone is coming off as aggressive – it wasn’t meant to in the least. And I do appreciate the artist’s intentions and am very happy that today a Mormon artist is wanting to depict Eve as black. And that he isn’t afraid of painting nudes and presenting those to a mainstream Mormon audience – heaven knows many of them need exposure (wrong choice in word?) to the idea that nudity is art. I applaud those efforts. And I am no art buff, not by any means. This painting confronts race, nudity, and gender. I’m just attempting to understand where the women of color who have criticized the painting are coming from. And I think that’s an important thing to do.

    One of the hardest things for me as a mother in this church is trying to help my daughters navigate patriarchy while trying to maintain their self worth. It is difficult and trying and many tears have been shed on my part. And there is a story there. But one that deserves to be told not by my husband or my bishop, but by me, a Mormon woman. As fantastic as they are, their stories would look very different than mine and wouldn’t be at all correct. It’s like one critic said in the Peggy Fletcher Stack article, that a black woman artist painting Eve would never have depicted her like that.

  35. Also I don’t know the answer of what an acceptable image of a black female painted by a white male looks like. But I can see the argument that it doesn’t look like the one he chose to portray.

  36. But as a woman I’ll say that I would like to see Eve’s face, her expression, the thought/story behind her eyes, etc., not her breasts, the focal point of her depiction.

  37. eponymous says:

    In response to Sean, no, in general, Africans do not have the same cultural triggers and experiences that African Americans do. In my own travels and conversations with Ghanians, Congolese, Cote d’Ivoireans, Angolans, they do not have the same sense of oppression or the same legacy as African Americans do. They are more focused on the challenges of their own communities and countries and how to overcome the legacies of colonialism and other economic issues.

    As Saidiya Hartman writes in her book, “Lose Your Mother, ” where she recounts her efforts as a researcher to trace the Atlantic slave trade routes from Ghana and to also better understand her own family history:

    In Gwolu, it finally dawned on me that those who stayed behind, the survivors of the slave trade, told different stories than the children of the captives dragged across the sea.

    There is no universal black experience. Yes there is racism and yes there is ill treatment but different people of color have different connections to what it means for them.

  38. whitemember, Kirk Richards doesn’t paint faces or facial expressions very often in his art — he only does a very small percentage of the time.

  39. Here’s one of his depictions of Jesus Christ, for example. https://jkirkrichards.files.wordpress.com/2012/02/481cristoliiexp.png

    Although here’s a painting that shows faces of women of color, “Daughters of Egyptus”:

  40. john f. thank you, that is so helpful
    I’m gonna go check out some of his other stuff now

  41. “It’s like one critic said in the Peggy Fletcher Stack article, that a black woman artist painting Eve would never have depicted her like that.”

    Totally unknowable.

  42. Talon, it’s knowable if we had black female LDS artists.

    Oh wait.

  43. It’s not often that I wish I lived in Utah, but that book store/art gallery looks pretty sweet!

  44. It’s presumptuous to assume what kind of art a person would/should not create no matter what colour/race/ethnicity they are.

  45. Some interesting things are happening in this discussion, and some very problematic things. Mainly, these days, art criticism seems to be done in one of two ways: with respect to authorial intent and without. If you interpret the piece through the lens of authorial intent, you take into account what the author or artist says his or her intent was when creating the piece respond to the piece using that information. If you don’t take it into account, and as most people do assume that the art no longer belongs to the author or artist once it’s in the public sphere, you respond to the piece and how it makes you feel and what it makes you think.

    What you cannot do, however, is both at the same time, which I feel like I see happening in conversations about this piece. Either authorial intent matters or it doesn’t. It isn’t fair to say that it doesn’t and that the piece makes you feel a certain way and at the same time say that the intent of the artist therefore *must have been* something. It isn’t fair to put words or thoughts in the author or artists’s mouth or mind.

    Art is a form of communication. When communicating, you listen to what the other person says and take it into account. You can then respond and say how you feel about what they said, but you don’t get to tell the other person why they said that. That’s not good communication. Any therapist can tell you that.

    The same goes for artwork. For all intents and purposes, if an artist says he or she intended a certain thing with their artwork, that’s what they intended. If a piece of art makes you feel a certain way, it’s perfectly fine to express that and we should all take your feelings into account. However, if the stated intent and your feelings on it are incongruous, it doesn’t mean that something else must have been intended.

  46. This is fantastic work! It is awesome to see other LDS artist breaking from the Parsons-esque doldrums and pushing forward with new and progressive dialogues and concepts.

  47. Arkholt – thank you for your insight. I think in a culture like western U.S. mormonism, with this particular piece, authorial intent does matter (at least it does to me). But although the Salt Lake Tribune article gave me a glimpse into his intent, is it wrong to imagine how his own culture could have influenced his intent in creating this particular piece in this particular way? And that maybe this culture is so innate in our minds it’s impossible not to be influenced by it, even without meaning to be? I only attempt to ask these questions of his intent because I grew up in the same culture. The artist said “I’m convinced Eve was black” and that “the human body is beautiful in all its shapes and colors.” And I believe, and admire that of him. And I also have now seen (and very much enjoyed!) many of his other works, and found them to be very positive and celebratory of women.

    But as he is also a white Mormon man. Just like my husband, my father, my brothers. A black mother Eve, from a western U.S. Mormon cultural standpoint, is certainly quite a grand topic to undertake, and the way she is depicted matters. So I can see why, with her breasts the most prominent feature in the picture while her face is turned away and less detailed, it could be problematic for some people. Especially the people whose bodies and skin color are most similar to the figure presented, and with the historical context both in and out of Mormonism those very folks have experienced.

    Knowing nothing, if we were to look at the painting and guess the race and gender of the artist, what would we say? It’s impossible to say for certain, of course. But to me there are aspects of it that point toward the artist being male and white. And that’s a problem, no matter what the artist’s intent. (Unless his intent was to highlight the innate racism that exists in our culture in order to create a dialogue, and if so, Bravo!)

    I’m not art literate but I suppose this is just how I’m seeing this whole thing. I think it’s possible to both admire and criticize this piece and question the possibility of unintentional yet discriminatory intent on the part of the artist (and myself, and all of us!). And I’m grateful for the conversation.

  48. “is it wrong to imagine how his own culture could have influenced his intent in creating this particular piece in this particular way? And that maybe this culture is so innate in our minds it’s impossible not to be influenced by it, even without meaning to be?”

    I wouldn’t say wrong, but certainly counterproductive. Artists are influenced by *everything* they’ve ever experienced in their entire lives, and when creating a piece of artwork any of that can come out. Any intent we may give to someone could be a true latent intent, but it would be purely speculative, and could derive from any number of influences. The more one speculates about it, the further from the actual content of the piece one gets. The point of art criticism should be to talk about the actual work, not the creator of it.

    Besides, as I wrote before, if the context of your culture makes a piece say something to you that’s uncomfortable or even painful, it’s perfectly fine to say that you feel that way, but I don’t think it’s fair to say that the creator of the work, even somewhere deep inside, *meant* to make you feel that way.

    Now, there are certainly times when the message is so blatant in a piece that it’s undeniable, and any statement by an artist to the contrary is ridiculous. However, if the artist states their intent and it’s reasonable given what’s in the piece, then I think it’s unnecessary to assign intent to the artist.

    “So I can see why, with her breasts the most prominent feature in the picture while her face is turned away and less detailed, it could be problematic for some people.”

    I can understand that as well, but it’s also possible that it’s simply part of the iconography, and is engaging with artwork from ancient African cultures. First of all, it reminds me quite a bit of ancient Egyptian depictions of people, always with their faces in profile and chest and midsections facing the front. This is not to denigrate anyone, but was just the general way in which people were depicted in their artwork. Secondly, most ancient artwork of women that you see will prominently display their breasts, partly because it made it easier to distinguish female figures from male figures, but mostly because it signified fertility and motherhood. In depicting the mother of all living, Eve, why should the part of her body that gives food to her children not be featured prominently?

    I can certainly see how, in our current culture which treats breasts as sex objects, it could be taken to mean something other than that. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Breasts have a very important biological function which has been seen with honor and respect in many cultures for many years, by men as well as women. I also find it interesting that it would be a problem when viewing a painting of Eve in the garden of Eden, given that she was not ashamed.

    “Knowing nothing, if we were to look at the painting and guess the race and gender of the artist, what would we say? It’s impossible to say for certain, of course. But to me there are aspects of it that point toward the artist being male and white.”

    This is interesting, because my first reaction upon first seeing it was that the artist was black and female. I’m confused by the comment referenced earlier that a black woman would not have depicted Eve this way. I wonder why someone would think that, mainly because I have seen paintings by black women depicting black nudes in much the same way. Perhaps the fact that it’s Eve makes it a bit different.

    “I think it’s possible to both admire and criticize this piece and question the possibility of unintentional yet discriminatory intent on the part of the artist (and myself, and all of us!).”

    I agree that criticism is important. The issue I see is that most people are viewing the piece and stating their first reaction, which in my opinion is never productive as far as art is concerned. There are so many more things to discover, and there is so much more to any good art piece than a first impression. Generally, I feel it’s best to engage with the work itself for the most part and leave the artist out of it. Of course, if there’s ever a chance to speak with the artist about his work then I don’t think it would be a problem to ask him questions about it.

  49. Arkholt – I appreciate your engaging with me! You obviously know much more about the art world than I do. I’ve re-read your response a few times and it’s left me lots to consider.

    “The point of art criticism should be to talk about the actual work, not the creator of it.” I can understand this. It’s harder for me to do this with Mormons (especially those from the western U.S.), I suppose because we’re members of the same tribe. I’m interested in their motivations. I feel the same way about LDS authors. And musicians (moreso Brandon Flowers, less so Janice Kapp Perry).

    Here’s how I feel when I see this painting and what prompts me to say the artist is obviously male.

    I know what it feels like to have a man pay more attention to my chest than to the words that come out of my mouth. I’ve been in situations with male colleagues where the clothes I am wearing, the movement of my body as I walk across the room, how “done up” I happen to be that day seems more interesting than my contribution to the conversation/problem at hand. In Sunday School the very fact I am female prevents me from stating opinions and insights, for fear they’ll be endured instead of respected. These are my fears. They don’t have to be completely justified, but they exist because of the culture in which I live.

    I love Eve. I love her story. I have imagined many times what she must have gone through. The thought process, the agony, the eventual strength and bravery she must have had to make that choice. That it was her, and not him, matters to me. And she did this before all of those years and years of oppression of women ever occurred. In this sense her existence is clean, untouched. Those years of oppression that resulted in my fear of being taken seriously. She didn’t have that, and I love it.

    In this painting the first thing I see are Eve’s breasts. They are facing me, straight on. They are beautiful, no doubt. But I must keep looking, searching to see the rest of her, and even when I do find the rest, my eye still wants to rest on her chest. The apple, the halo, the story, those feel secondary. Her emotions, her thought process, her character, they are missing from her face. I like the idea of Eve being portrayed nude. And I get the fertility/motherhood/biological portrayal of breasts thing. But her breasts should be a part of her, part of the woman, part of the story. But in this painting it feels like she IS her breasts. And she’s not ashamed of her nakedness, nor should she be. But she also shouldn’t be ashamed of her strength, her story, her confidence, in a way that women today are often unable to be. But we don’t see any of that here.

    Am I projecting my own fears through a piece of art? Quite possibly. And I don’t know much about artwork from ancient African or Egyptian cultures. But I know that the artist is a white Mormon male. So it’s hard not to feel that the very things that bother me about this painting are justified, that my own fears are justified, because this very well may be how Mormon men see not just women in general, but even our beloved Mother Eve, perhaps the greatest of us all.

  50. Sean the Sheep says:

    The reaction to the depiction of breasts as sexual exploitation rather than a natural fertility symbol is quite telling and, in my view, unfortunate. Google, if you wish, depictions of Diana/Artemis of Ephesus, who was subsequently co-opted by the cult of Mary. For Americans, who have sexual violence on the brain from all the offensive movies and advertisements they are exposed to, I imagine this is to be expected, but in terms of evaluating a serious work of art, it is profoundly unfortunate and ahistorical. I really hope Kirk doesn’t start letting the boundaries of his work be determined by Utah sensibilities rather than engaging with world religious iconography writ large.

  51. Sean the Sheep says:
  52. It is unfortunate that our culture has conditioned us to see breasts as sexual, but I can completely understand that one could have that reaction to this piece, and I appreciate whitemember sharing her feelings about that. I guess I’ve been exposed to so much fine art, much of which contains nudity of some kind, that if something is in a fine art context I don’t immediately connect it to anything sexual. I do know, though, that this is a large issue especially in LDS art circles. I went to college at Southern Virginia University, a majority LDS school, and I remember quite well the heated debate we had the very first day of art history class over whether nudity equals pornography. The short answer is that no, it doesn’t, but we never seemed to come to any kind of consensus. This debate continued in various ways throughout my college career. I think the wider culture has focused so much on sexualized nude images, and our LDS culture has focused so much on pushing back against that, that we are no longer able to see non-sexualized nude images for what they really are.

    This is not to blame the Church for members having this reaction, either, and definitely not to invalidate anyone’s feelings about it. The major thing that the pervasiveness of pornography has done is to distort and pervert our view of what the human body is and what it’s for. We can no longer view the human body as the wonder of creation that it is. It’s a work of art in itself, but we have to work very hard to be able to see it that way. The feelings of members in relation to nudity are therefore completely logical and justified.

    I just wish there was a way that we could take back the nude female figure as beautiful, powerful, and honorable instead of simply a sex object. I’m not sure how to do that, and it seems that as a man I probably won’t be able to. Most likely it will have to be women who take back the symbols of femininity and use them in the way they were meant to be used. I’ve seen it done, and it’s been done very well. Speaking of SVU, I’ve seen it try to be done in a senior art show there, by a woman, but in the end the school didn’t allow her to display her nude painting. This is something important that we must grapple with as an LDS community, because if in the end we can deal with nudity in a healthy way, then we’ll be able to engage with a much wider, more varied world of art.

  53. Hello Sean, yes it is unfortunate. And the nursing mother image you linked to is one of my favorites of Richards. I love that her breasts are showing, that she is nursing. When I see that painting I see maternal love. The breasts are there, yes, but they are secondary to the story. Not so, for me, with this painting. Her breasts are so prominent, the rest feels less important, as I discussed above. And as an LDS woman, with Eve, this matters to me. And I think I can still like the painting for other reasons while saying that.

    Richards isn’t an artist from ancient Egypt or Africa and I would say many of his pieces have strong LDS themes (like the fantastic “Worlds Without End). Is his audience the “world religious iconography writ at large?” Or is it his fellow members? I guess that really doesn’t even matter. My point is that as an LDS woman with considerable baggage, I pay close attention to everything that deals with women in the church. With young daughters, I have a lot at stake. And art should be no exception, especially when the subject is Eve. So in this case, for me, who the artist is matters, and how she is depicted matters.

    These are my interpretations. Take them or leave them. But are they valid? To the artist? The LDS community? LDS men? Is anyone hearing this? Does anyone even care?

    And I’m not even black.

  54. I think this painting is quite lovely in a number of ways, but I would have liked it more if Eve were portrayed fully nude or if the painting cut off just beneath her breasts. The placement of the branch over her belly and hips is what sexualizes the image, not the uncovering of her breasts. I like that she is portrayed as calm and reflective as she partakes of the fruit. But the convenient limb just makes me feel like the artist has taken the censoring ferns and moved them lower to show that he’s more daring. Eh. I kind of feel like a woman would have painted her full frontal.

  55. Hedgehog says:

    So I have no knowledge of the history of black women depicted in art, and my initial response to the furor was ‘what in the world, you just can’t win…’. That was before taking a look at the second image in your post Michael, and I *hated* it. All that woman as fertility symbol, attached to a baby, and described as a temple put me far too much in mind of Valerie Hudson’s speculations that have my toes curling up, and me running for the hills screaming. It was this realisation that taught me that yes, there will be those who experiences will result in a visceral reaction to that first painting. It’s a valid response.

  56. Hedgehog says:

    That would be Christian, not Michael. Sorry! Getting authors confused…

  57. your food allergy is fake says:

    The branch is interesting. It actually has the form of an outstretched arm, suggesting lucifer offering the fruit. Or reaching to grope the naked female?

    “Art is never chaste. It ought to be forbidden to ignorant innocents, never allowed into contact with those not sufficiently prepared. Yes, art is dangerous. Where it is chaste, it is not art.”
    Picasso

  58. your food allergy is fake says:

    Another reason the breasts appear so prominent is that their position, size and form are so similar to the fruits scattered about the composition. Yes the piece is in part about breasts, but for much more interesting reasons than some are appreciating.

  59. Well, I seem to be the unicorn here…in the sense that I’m a WoC (mixed race, specifically half-black Nigerian and half white american) Lds, feminist, who happens to be an artist (though not professionally like Kirk), and also knows a little of the artist in question. I also love his piece! I mean I may just buy a print if I can afford it, which says a lot.
    Why I love the piece: first I love kirk’s stuff on a normal day as it is. I’m very picky with my art and his work is what I would consider good Art… stylized in a way that is uniquely him, and bridges symbol with several artistic eras. He also seeks real artists influence. He had a joint gallery/project exhibition with an lds African painter on BYU campus a while back that was great. So when I heard he painted a black Eve, I was beyond excited! And he didn’t disappoint. The figure is strong stoic and backdropped naturally to give a natural halo, indicative of our lds view of Eve as a sacred figure. The circle is a repeated symbol that connects sun, fruit, and body/breasts in one. It works well, particularly with women as life givers and breast as literal emblems of bringing/maintaining infant life. The coloration is gorgeous. Both serene and marking a conclusion to a paradise and entering a new day. It can be both a sunset or a sunrise. The breasts are not the first thing I noticed there were second to last actually. The fruit were first, then the halo and face, then her breast which, though clear, are also shadowed and not attention grabbing on their own accord.

    In the lds art world that I’ve seen pieces of, honestly the critiques frustrated me. The images of brown women (no matter the race) are 1) limited, 2) periphery 3) non-ancient and 4) somewhat paternalistic. Examples: Swindle did a few pieces that looked ripped off straight from an African humanitarian trip where white Jesus is seen in the midst of these black kids. The image is my least favorite for the obvious parallel. But the others are similar where Christ is with brown children. Others are on the periphery most BoM is a great indicator of this. There are brown figures, usually lamanites but sometimes a mixed group (usually Christ coming paintings) and the main characters are more white Phenotype. An example is an older one of the stripping warriors where the white nephites leader stands before the brown lamanites. The limited is just overall. Almost all images are Northern European to Italian looking at best. There is little to no lds themed art period with black/brown main figures. The only other that I can think of recently is of Esplin Young’s Jane painting (p.s a white lds woman artist) that’s cropping up in a few temples. My art and soul craves pieces that represent ancient and eternal spirituality of diverse people’s. Which is why I love Kirk’s piece. She is the main and only figure, black and bold and stoic, and she ties into are earliest spiritual stories. She also represents what I wish I saw in endowment sessions with the new videos.
    Triggers happen in art all the time, without it meaning to. I have a painting in my house hat I did of a black woman with a white igbo mask over her face. It’s softly abstracted and appears serene and regal to me. My Mexican-American roommate who struggles with identity believed that she was indicative of my biracial struggle with identity and feeling the world placing a white mask on a black soul and the Serene face looked sad. Her experience of racial dissonance dictated what she saw. Ironically the piece that does represent my mixed heritage is of a brown baby on burlap with intertwined African and European symbols and is in the same room. Another piece is in my room because I’m still single and people find it uncomfortable to see partially nude woman with a breast-feeding baby still. I can’t control a trigger. Nor can Kirk. It doesn’t make the piece a literal emblem of Slavery and oppression, exoticism, immodesty/sexyalization, etc. But one thing is true I wouldn’t have painted eve that way. I know because I’ve painted her. She’s clothed, light brown, wih black thick curls with the fruit right over her womb connecting all women of all shades. But I wish I had and have painted a self portrait that’s similar (me bare chested grabbing a piece of white fruit). Part of the reason is because I’m aware of both Mormon and/or racial taboos that exist in our society and as a single woman with roommates I have to live with society walking in my art space. And I enjoy controversy, but having it in my home everyday is not my cup of tea. There’s only so many boundaries this brown Mormon is willing to push at a time. Kirk’s white ally position can give him more leeway to do so at times and I will not feel oppressed because he did what I feel leery to do.

  60. Joseph Stanford says:

    A bit of a tangent. There are several movies for the temple endowment. Wouldn’t it be great if there was one where Adam and Eve are of African descent? And another where they are Asian? And another where they are American Indian (or Native American)?